Sunday, December 7, 2014

Photo Essay - Storming Castle Hill, New Zealand

The indigenous Ngāi Tahu people named this place Kura Tawhiti, treasure of a distant land. Later European settlers, reminded of towering battlements, called it Castle Hill. It is well named in either case. Situated on the spine of New Zealand's South Island, south of Arthur's Pass, Castle Hill is still a high-country sheep station. But amoeboid, stony marbles crisply framed against a steely blue sky, it is also an otherworldly karst landscape of tumbling limestone boulders and tors rising from the rolling, grassy turf.

No wonder Walden Media picked nearby Flock Hill Station for its climactic battle scene in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. But unlike Flock Hill, Kura Tawhiti/Castle Hill is on a reserve and has free public access. Publicity from the movie has undoubtedly brought additional tourism to the area. That was one of the draws for my family when we visited in September of 2008. Even from the car park alongside the highway, the gentle 800 meter gravel track to the park clearly leads to  adventure.

This is the view from the car park, just off State Highway 73.

Will we find Narnia...or Middle Earth? There's a 15 month-old boy on my back, doing some climbing of his own.

The end of the road.

Castle Hill is one of the best family destinations in New Zealand, an easy day trip from Christchurch. Of course, the family have to be willing accomplices. My middle son--then seven--read a sign mentioning this was private property, and try as we might we could not get him to step within the boundaries of the park for fear of imminent arrest. I finally had to pick him up and bodily carry him, screaming murder, to make any progress into the maze of rocks. Blood pressure rising, by this time I was hardly meditative, and I questioned the Dalai Lama's judgement in naming Kura Tawhiti a "spiritual centre of the universe." Though no doubt it is one of the most photogenic.

Castle Hill would be a memorable place for a picnic. My wife lamented we didn't bring a lunch to enjoy with the view. September is the "bridge season" in New Zealand, before the big summer tourist push, and we largely had the area to ourselves for the first couple hours of the morning.

Looking generally north-eastwards. A similar geologic setting is in the middle distance to the right, at Flock Hill Station, where climactic scenes of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe were filmed. The crenulations on the foreground hills of Kura Tawhiare from generations of sheep (and humans) side-hilling, the least energy-intensive mode of travel in steep country.

It took a long while to get son number two Andrew (right, on the left) this far. Our oldest Thomas (left) might have stayed if we'd left him.

It is also one of the premier rock climbing sites in New Zealand, particularly "bouldering" in this case. There are numerous established "problems" (routes) bolted into popular climbs throughout the reserve. We weren't there for that--I had an infant on my back--but I had a ponder over the irony of seeing exhortations to respect the belief system of the Ngāi Tahu, for whom any climbing of the rocks demeans their sacred status or "tapu," adjacent to an explanation of the rock climbing code. It reminds me of Uluru in Australia, where similar entreaties to cultural awareness flank the base-level starting point of a well-worn, chain-link hand rail leading upwards to the top of Ayers Rock. Here in many cases, I could walk around the back (western) side of nearly any particularly steep rock tower and smugly look down on a climber.

Here I am looking generally southwards along strike of the limestone's dip slope. From this vantage point it is easy to see the limestone at Castle Hill was originally a single layer that has been deeply incised through weathering, such that its cliff-forming eastern side (left) looks like a series of toothy towers. 

Another view to the north reveals the slab-like geometry of the original limestone formation, which can be difficult to observe from other vantage points.
But ultimately you cannot escape respecting the landscape. No digital movie magic can do a real-life fantasy land justice; only a location shoot could capture even a pale image of a reality that was 40 million years in the making. Nor could a stubborn young man forever hold his father's ire. You can only wrestle so long until tiring. And in the end we both had to reflect on this geological wonder of a distant land, breathing in deeply its treasure.

There are numerous hidden paddocks of tufty grass to explore amongst the limestone fortresses.

To get there from Christchurch, drive northwest on the Old West Coast Road (State Highway 73), then proceed on the West Coast Road (also SH 73, Commonly known as the Great Alpine Highway) from Sheffield. Total drive time is about 1 hour and 15 minutes, on just short of 100 kilometers. A small car park before the footpath to Kura Tawhiti/Castle Hill Conservation Area is located on the left side of the road, about 4 kilometers south of the small town of Castle Hill.

This is even a great place to visit on Google Earth.